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5 minutes with... A Pala-period sculpture of a warrior goddess

Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art specialist Isabel McWilliams on a depiction in stone — around 1,000 years old — of the Hindu goddess Durga killing a shapeshifting buffalo demon. On 21 March it will be offered in our Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art Sale

‘From day one, many female deities have been commonly associated with fertility,’ says Isabel McWilliams, specialist in the Indian, Himalayan & Southeast Asian Art department in New York. ‘But in this stone figure from northeast India of the Hindu goddess Durga we see one of the most popular examples of a female deity who is harnessing a much wider range of cosmic powers.’

Durga, also known as Devi or Shakti, is ‘an omnipotent, fearsome deity who combats evil forces’, McWilliams explains. A warrior goddess, she is frequently depicted in Hindu sculpture atop a tiger or lion, often carrying weapons. Here Durga is depicted in her manifestation as Mahishasuramardini, slayer of the shapeshifting buffalo demon Mahishasura.

According to Hindu myth, Mahishasura could not be killed by man or god. ‘Power-crazed, he conquered the heavens, whose deities were unable to stop him,’ says McWilliams. In response, the gods cried to the goddess Parvati for help and asked her to summon the collective shakti  or divine power of all the female deities in the creation of Durga, who could destroy Mahishasura. After nine days of battle, Durga vanquished Mahishasura and his army and restored the heavens to the gods.

A black stone stele of Durga Mahishasura Mardini, northeast India, Pala period, Late 10th-early 11th century. 51½ in (131 cm) high. Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. This work is offered on 21 March in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art Sale at Christie’s in New York
A black stone stele of Durga Mahishasura Mardini, northeast India, Pala period, Late 10th-early 11th century. 51½ in (131 cm) high. Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. This work is offered on 21 March in the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art Sale at Christie’s in New York

In this sculpture, just over 4 ft (131 cm) high and carved in an almost velvety, rich dark grey stone, Durga is seen in the precise moment of spearing Mahishasura. ‘You see that the buffalo’s head is severed from the body,’ the specialist points out. ‘And in killing the buffalo, she’s also killing Mahishasura, seen here as the demon figure atop the animal. It’s quite a dramatic image that captures the decisive moment in the narrative.’

Between the 8th and the 12th centuries, the regions of Bihar and Bengal (modern-day northeast India and Bangladesh) were politically and culturally unified under the reign of the Pala kings. Stone sculptures of the later period — carved from grey or black schist, which is reminiscent of slate in its foliate structure and colour — reflected an eclectic mix of Buddhist and Hindu iconography.

McWilliams admires the sculpture’s ‘typical minute detailing’

McWilliams admires the sculpture’s ‘typical minute detailing’

‘The forms on this example, dating from the late 10th to the early 11th century, are particularly balanced and beautifully carved; the exquisite modelling of her many arms and torso convey both strength and suppleness,’ says McWilliams. ‘The stone itself has a glow to it, and the carving is executed with the minute detail and fine modelling that are typical of the period. Everything from her jewellery to her eyebrow is precisely articulated.

‘I love the detail of the bottom register, where you see her lion mount nipping at the back of the buffalo,’ the specialist continues. ‘The figure of the demon is also rather whimsical, with its vivid expression and animated body. It’s rare to come across a sculpture whose image is so lively and in which every corner is treated with such skill and attention.’

Pala works, especially ones of this size and of this quality, are relatively rare in the market. They tend to be seated or standing figures of the male Hindu and Buddhist deities, rather than female deities, of which fewer examples exist. ‘To find a sculpture of this date, of this size and in such good condition is extremely rare,’ says McWilliams. ‘It's impressive in photographs, but when you see it up close and in person, it is truly striking.’